This article was published in the January 2001 issue of Entertainment Management.
This story begins early in 1999, when I approached by a family-entertainment-center operator in the United Arab Emirates. The company operated FECs in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and wanted to expand into Dubai. It had negotiated a preliminary lease for 25,000 SF on the ground floor of a large, 450,000-SF, five-floor department store, but it had a dilemma. There were already family entertainment centers in each of the three largest malls in Dubai. The company felt that to be competitive it had to offer something different. That's why, 8,000 miles later, we were in Dubai.
No matter what your preconceived notions may be about the Middle East, Dubai is a total surprise. It is extremely modern with skyscrapers, cutting-edge malls, the world's first seven-star hotel and lots of tourism. Most surprising, only some 30 percent of the city's families are Arab; about 50 percent are from India, and about 20 percent are expatriate Westerners. The three main cultural groups operate almost as parallel societies; while they shop in the same malls and eat in the same restaurants, the three rarely interact.
That multi-cultural mix posed a challenge, as each culture has its unique tastes and preferences. After studying the competition and evaluating the demographics and cultures, we concluded that younger children should be the common denominator around which the new center would be developed. However, we believed the new center should be positioned completely differently than the conventional FECs there, which focused on rides and amusements.
So we turned to the idea of children's edutainment, which had been so successful for many of our clients in the US and Latin America. But would it work in this part of the world and with this mix of cultures? To find out, our Education and Cultural Director conducted focus groups with Arab and Indian mothers and children. (Our research shows that mothers and children make 90% or more of the decisions on when and which CEC to attend and children only participate in the decision about 40% of the time.) The focus groups confirmed that edutainment - developmentally appropriate children's play events - would receive a warm reception from all cultural groups and position the center uniquely in the marketplace.
The focus groups uncovered another opportunity. There were precious few places in Dubai where women could go during the day to socialize among themselves. None of the Arab mothers and almost none of the Indian and Western mothers worked, and they were starved for interaction. In the Arab world, cafés and restaurants are not frequently by women alone or together, only by men alone or by the entire family. The Arab women were especially interested in a ladies-only facility, as that would allow them to remove their coverings - their black hijabs (head coverings) and abbayahs - and relax and socialize with other adults and play with their children. Interestingly, the Indians and Westerns also liked the idea of a ladies-only facility as a place where the cultures could interact and learn about each other.
Our next job was to find a theme for the center. For this, we conducted research with children and schools, because the center would also target weekday school field trips. Conservation was the theme that drew the strongest response. The mascot we chose was a cousin of the manatee, the dugong, which is endangered in the Arabian Gulf. And because dugongs are matriarchal, we created a fictional female dugong named LouLou ("pearl" in Arabic, for the "Pearl City" of Dubai) Al Dugong ("of the dugongs"), which also provided the center's name.
A storyline was written about LouLou Al Dugong and her friends Humpy Al Jamel ("of the camels") and Sharpeyes Al Sagar ("of the falcons") and how they teach the people of the Gulf region the importance of preserving dugongs and native sea creatures. The storyline included a special membership club for children called LouLou Eco-Rangers. The center's interior theming was designed to reflect the three areas of the Gulf where the storyline takes place. The entrance and lobby represent the city, with archetypes of local architecture. Of the rest of the center, part represents the sea where dugongs live and part depicts an island in the Arabian Gulf where the beginning of the storyline takes place.
The center was designed to focus on the two primary guests, children and women. Research in child development shows that children universally develop through distinct stages as they grow, starting with infants, toddlers, preschoolers, then early grade school. At age 8 or 9, though, a major change occurs in their thought processes and interests. What appeals to younger children no longer appeals to them and a sissy-avoidance factor sets in. To include children from about 9 to 12 would require a separate area with separate activities, but the center's space was limited. We decided to focus on children 8/9 and younger.
Children, just like adults, have varied interests, but unlike adults, they often have miniscule attention spans. We needed to include a diverse mix of activities that would appeal to their interests and keep them engaged for several hours to assure a reasonable length of stay. And, just like adults, children like to be empowered and in charge, and they need to feel competent, so the play events needed to be "developmentally appropriate" to match the needs and abilities of children.
We designed 15 edutainment events for children from age 2 to 8/9:
While many of the children's play events seem straight out of Western culture, we incorporated all three local cultures into their design. The pretend fishing is from a replica of a traditional Gulf dhow boat, for example, and the exterior of the pretend house was designed to appeal to Arab, Indian and Western cultures. The pretend dress-up features clothing, including traditional jewelry, from the three cultural groups, and the pretend mendhi or henna is a tradition practiced by both Arabs and Indians.
Children's empowerment also required special attention to anthropometrics - design that matches the size, physical range and abilities of younger children. At LouLou Al Dugongs, all the children's areas were designed to make child-sized people feel competent, with sinks and ceilings lowered to a child's scale. Research shows that child-scaled environments not only improve the quality of children's play, but also extend its time; at LouLou's, we have observed children play in areas far longer than what is thought to be possible given their attention spans.
One of the great advantages of edutainment is its repeat appeal. Since most of the play activities are open-ended, meaning children can create their own "scripts" rather than have the play scripted for them, the play activities are different for every child and on every visit. We also promote repeat appeal through ever-changing programming. LouLou's constantly changes the materials in the art studios, recipes at the cooking area, and shows at the performance area, where trained play facilitators tell stories, conduct puppet shows, play music, and where LouLou Al Dugong appears and explains the preservation of sea creatures.
So children have a blast. Just as importantly, edutainment helps children develop and learn about the world around them, a result that parents value. To make the benefits clear, signs in both Arabic and English have been placed at each play event explaining how it contributes to their child's development.
Speaking of parents, we knew it would be especially important to design the center to appeal to the mother primary decision makers, who had requested a comfortable, ladies-only place. And that's what we gave them. During the day on weekdays, the center is open to women and children only. The center was especially designed to give the Arab women total privacy from men so they could remove their traditional coverings. The large window-wall was covered with a special decorative plastic film imported from Japan that blocks visibility but that allows in sunlight. The entrances into the center were designed using the traditional Arab zig-zag entry so no one outside the center can see in. And the center is staffed almost entirely with women, so only women work during ladies-only times.
We also designed the café to be especially appealing to women who want to sit and chat. The café is full-service and upscale, with comfortable chairs and a wide selection of snacks and meals: cappuccino and coffee drinks, fresh-fruit smoothies, pizzas, Arabic dishes and grills, hamburgers, and a wide vegetarian selection. (You may have noticed that this list doesn't mention soft drinks. We found that many mothers didn't serve soft drinks to their children at home, and they resented having to say no to their children when soft drinks were served elsewhere. The owners, then, decided to forego all the advertising money the two major cola companies offered and not serve any soft drinks at the center.)
Adult areas at LouLou's were primarily designed for women, who enjoy foliage and natural light. The extensive live planting areas include 60-foot-long planting areas running along the windows. Colors were selected based upon the focus group research with the Arab and Indian women, whose color preferences were almost identical.
Probably the most research and attention to detail was put into the design of the restrooms, especially for women. The restrooms were designed to meet traditional Muslim hygiene practices as well as Western practices. This makes the restroom complex at LouLou's unique, as we could not find a single restroom facility in Dubai that addressed the needs of both modern and traditional Muslims. The restroom complex at LouLou Al Dugongs includes adult and child-sized Western toilets (WCs), Turkish or Indian toilets, facilities for the disabled and specially designed diaper-changing rooms that allow babies to be bathed (a Muslim practice). Each WC compartment includes a bidet wand and individual hand washing sinks, and some sinks are designed in height and size for younger children. In addition, in the restroom area there is a private nursing room, a women's ablution room (washing for prayer) and a women's prayer room.
A highly qualified staff is essential to the success of LouLou's. Their jobs are considerably more complex than that of exchanging prizes for tickets or strapping children into rides - they must be able to interact with people from different cultures and understand children and how they play. Our company was charged with interviewing and screening staff, a job that took us to India, Thailand, and Morocco. A thousand applicants were screened for 68 jobs. Of those hired, 90 percent are women and more than half speak both Arabic and English; many also speak French, Thai, Hindi and Urdu. The entire staff is full-time with three-year contracts, and all have been through a one-month training program in topics including child development, cultural diversity, play leadership, ecology, emergency management, safety, and customer service.
While designing LouLou's included the same steps as those of most children's edutainment facilities, it offered the chance to learn about a totally new mix of cultures. By taking the time to identify what was distinct about Dubai society, we were able to design a facility that does more than makes a profit - it brings people together. There is a profound satisfaction that comes from respecting local culture, a satisfaction that can translate to family entertainment centers anywhere.
Randy White is the CEO of the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Missouri, USA firm that specializes in the production and design of family and children's leisure venues worldwide. Randy can be reached at voice: +1.816.931-1040, fax: 816-756-5058, by e-mail or on the web: www.whitehutchinson.com.